The Post Office: Its very unlikely that unless you don’t read any news, or you live outside the UK that you will not have heard about the Post Office scandal. Although various newspapers have published stories about the Post Office scandal over many years, it has come to public awareness along with associated outrage after it featured in a 4-part TV drama.
Sub postmasters working for the Post Office and mostly running small branches within rural and suburban shops have always had a contract that states that if there is any shortfall after balancing the takings then the shortage must be made up by the sub postmaster. This was never an issue until the Post Office installed the Fujitsu Horizon accounting system into all their branches. Sub postmasters suddenly found that there were shortfalls in their accounts that could run to thousands of pounds. When the sub postmasters questioned how such amounts could be missing, they were told that they were the only one who experienced such shortfalls, and the computer system was robust. The Post Office who could charge their employees with false accounting or theft chose to do so sending some sub postmasters to prison, forcing some into bankruptcy and in some case leading to the affected sub postmasters to take their own lives. At all times the Post Office claimed the system was robust and any faults were due to the sub postmasters. It has taken twenty years and a TV drama for the truth to come out and that is that the Horizon computer system was not really fit for purpose, something now which the Post Office has come to accept. The reality was that the money was never missing, and the payments made to cover the discrepancies simply contributed to the Post Office profits. The fallout from the TV drama has even forced the Prime Minister to make a statement in Parliament.
I was interested to read a piece in the Times newspaper asking why it has taken so long for this story of misdeed and incompetence to make the political impact it merits. The Times says that it has run hundreds of stories on the scandal over the last decade, yet these failed to produce the appropriate outrage. The paper says that it now thinks it understands why.
The Times says that the way human’s reason means that the public prefers stories that show they are right whilst ignoring those that that show they are wrong. They are indifferent to stories that show they are a little bit right and a little bit wrong. According to the Times, the Post Office scandal didn’t vindicate anyone’s point of view or support their prejudices so the only people who were interested were those suffering directly and who were pointing out the failings of the system.
Now I am not suggesting that there is any comparison between the injustices of the Post Office scandal and the salmon farming industry but what I would consider is the way that the Post Office continued to maintain that their system was robust until a time when so many people were losing their jobs, their savings and in some cases their freedom as a result of the Horizon system that it became increasing difficult to continue the denial.
SEPA have announced that they will launch the sea lice risk framework this spring despite claims from the industry that the computerised modelling and the underlying science is flawed. Fish Farming Expert reports that the industry has said that the framework places undue reliance on a modelling framework that has not even been validated and is unlikely to ever be so.
SEPA and their partners in the Marine Directorate appear determined to progress the introduction of this risk framework almost with a Horizon type belief in their system whilst totally ignoring the concerns expressed by those who will be most affected. The reason they can do so is that as with sub postmasters only the salmon farming industry is affected by this framework and thus is of no concern to the public at large.
The Times said that the bigger the problems that Horizon caused, the more the Post Office dug in their heels. This is because admitting to yourself or anyone else that you had been wrong involves accepting a much bigger burden.
It is my view, that if the partners in the sea lice risk framework are so convinced that their modelling and science is so right then they should have no problem defending their decisions and actions directly to those who it will affect most. Horizon shows that blind faith in computer-based systems can lead to an extremely unhappy ending. The time to resolve outstanding questions is now, not when things go wrong, which they will.
Opening day: By the time you read this issue of reLAKSation, anglers will have already had eight days that they could go fishing for salmon on the river Helmsdale, as reported by the Northern Times and reposted by Fisheries Management Scotland. Anglers fishing the river Tay were not far behind with the season opening on the 15th of January. The parade leading to the first cast on the Helmsdale can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GvhRZuvBbM&t=1s It was interesting to see that children from the local primary school joined the parade to promote the catching of threatened salmon.
The change of IUCN listing to threatened status brings further into focus the decision to categorise the conservation limits for wild salmon in Scotland’s rivers. The Scottish Government’s website provides information on Scottish river conservation gradings for 2024. This year 31 rivers or river systems are classified as Grade One: 30 for Grade Two and 112 for Grade Three making a total of 173 rivers or river systems. Following the Scottish Government’s example of previous years, this would indicate the 65% of Scottish rivers are below an acceptable conservation status and are not open to any form of exploitation. Anglers fishing any of these 112 Grade 3 rivers must return any fish they catch.
However, the idea that 65% of Scottish rivers do not meet their conservation limit is flawed. This assumes that all 173 rivers or river systems are equal when clearly, they are not. For example, Abhainn Eig in the Outer Hebrides covers an area of 4,000 m2 whilst the river Tay catchment has an area of 15,327,000 m2. How can they be considered to be equivalent when one is 3832 times larger than the other. In total there are 109 fishery districts, so the number of 173 rivers or rivers systems means that some districts have been sub-divided, which in the case of the Snizort fishery district, is into ten different areas? The much larger Tweed fishery district is still assessed as one single area.
The reason why the number of assessed area has expanded from the original 109 fishery districts is because some anglers complained that whilst other areas of the district may have a poor conservation status, their part of the district was much better Consequently, the assessment appears to have been expanded into an additional 64 assessments.
The Marine Directorate has published a full list of assessments on their websites and if they are counted, the total number is actually 224. This means that there are another 51 assessments that are not included in the declared conservation limits.
Regular readers of reLAKSation will know that I have already struggled with the maths used by the wild fish sector in that the rod catch declared by Fisheries Management Scotland is so different to those posted in the official Government figures. The discrepancy, even though both sets of data are supposed to come from the same source, has been so great that Fisheries Management Scotland has stopped included the details of catches in their Annual Review.
Whilst the areas assessed for conservation limits are shown to be 224 in number, the summary clearly lists a total of 173. It seems that someone appears unable to apply even the most basic maths.
However, the discrepancies do not stop there. In addition to the summary conservation limits, the Scottish Government publishes eleven documents detailing all conservation areas for all of Scotland. These include details of the area in square metres covered by each of the 170 conservation areas. I last analysed this data in 2022 and was simply going to update the areas for 2024 but I noticed that the actual area appeared different in size to the 2022 data. Some of these areas were larger and some were smaller.
The total area covered in 2024 by the conservation limit analysis was 150,304,057 square metres. In 2022, the area was 159,803,359 square metres. The reports do say these are median values. However, at the same time, it does seem that the area available to salmon in Scotland has shrunk by 9,499,302 square metres. Are Scotland’s rivers drying up? Is this the result of climate change or is it just a lack of care during the analysis?
When the various areas are given a conservation grading, just 30% are categorised as Grade 3, 20% as Grade 2 and 50% as Grade 1. This compares with 27%, 16% and 57% in 2022. Certainly, Grade 3 areas are not as abundant, when assessed by area, compared to when they are perceived to be equal units.
Yet, the most interesting aspect of the 2024 assessment of conservation status is that 11 Grade 1 and 22 Grade 2 rivers or river systems, which means that they are open to exploitation as long as local regulations allow, are located within the west coast Aquaculture Zone. There are 33 in total, which is not an insignificant number. In 2022, exploitation by anglers using rod and line in such rivers led to the premature deaths of 274 wild fish from rivers within the Aquaculture Zone. Whilst the fishing season ended some weeks ago and some fishery districts have publicised their 2023 catch, the official figures are unlikely to be available before April. Thus, there is no knowledge of the 2023 catch from within the Aquaculture Zone. This is simply not acceptable given that SEPA aim to launch their sea lice risk framework soon, despite clearly stating that sea lice from salmon farms are not responsible for the decline of wild salmon. What they do say is that salmon stocks are now so low that they are endangered. They say that the additional pressure, however small, could be significant and thus the framework could help safeguard even a small number of wild fish. Yet, if wild fish stocks are now considered threatened how can 33 rivers within the Aquaculture Zone that are clearly part of the wild fish protection zones established by SEPA be deemed sufficiently viable that anglers can catch and kill the fish. SEPA say that safeguarding wild fish from angling is not their responsibility yet surely, they should be concerned that their own attempts to safeguard wild fish are being undermined by Marine Directorate conservation limits that allow anglers to continue pursuing their sport and killing what they catch. Surely, these various agencies should be talking to each other to adopt a joined-up policy on wild fish conservation because currently, it looks like that the salmon farming industry has been singled out for regulation even though it is widely accepted that the industry is not responsible for the claims being made against it. There is a wild fish strategy that should work to protect wild fish whatever the pressure, but the reality is that the wild fish strategy has more to do with protecting the interests of the fisheries sector than the interests of the fish. Clearly, if wild fish are now so endangered then killing any wild fish should be banned and those rivers considered under the greatest threat i.e. Grade 3, should all be closed to angling for the foreseeable future. Perhaps then, the children of Helmsdale primary school might have something to celebrate rather than the beginning of yet another angling season.
Postscript. The Herald newspaper reported that comedian Paul Whitehouse made the first cast at the ceremony to mark the opening of the river Tay to salmon fishing. The decision to invite a comedian to open the season shows those that those responsible for the fishing on the Tay must be having a laugh because the sad fact is that the Tay’s 2023 catch is the lowest in recent decades. It is not exactly clear which catches this refers to. The lowest catch so far recorded was in 1953 totalling just 2,493 salmon and grilse and the highest catch was 15,683 in 1989. The 10-year average catch in the years preceding the recent collapse was about 10,000 fish a year. In 2022 the catch was 5,058. Unfortunately, it is likely that details of the 2023 catch will not be released until April, so it is impossible to make any proper assessment until then which is three to four months after the new season began.
I can only wonder why those on the Tay are celebrating the opening of the new season when the last season’s catch was so poor. It’s just like its business as usual even though this year is unlikely to be any better. You just have to laugh, so it’s a good job there is a comedian about.
Best science: Last week, the Secretary for Rural Affairs, Mairi Gougeon, launched a new Marine Science and Innovation Strategy with the aim of using the ‘best science and data’ to shape marine policy.
The most interesting part of the document was to be found on page 12. This is a box containing an account of the Scottish Coastal Observatory Story. Presumably this is included as one of the foremost examples of the use of science and data. According to the strategy document, the observatory has provided the first sustained description of Scotland’s coastal environment. This includes a record of changes to the diversity of both the microscopic animal and plant planktonic community.
This is not the first time I have heard of the Scottish Coastal Observatory as I have previously consulted their data. The Scottish Coastal Observatory has sampling sites in several locations around Scotland including Loch Ewe. The Scottish Government website states that the sampling site is in a sheltered fish farm hosted by Jane and Willie Grant, although that may no longer be true.
Data has been posted on their website from 2002 to 2017 including one dataset relating to zooplankton. In total there are 201,163 entries of various types of zooplankton, which are too numerous to list. However, included in the list are zooplankton of the family Caligidae. These include sea lice such as those that infest salmon. Those analysing the data, do not attempt to identify the species so the Caligidae recorded could be one of the fifty different species that inhabit UK waters.
Of the 201,163 records, just 819 are recorded as Caligidae but only 80 of these, record the presence of the louse. The others are recorded as zero. Fifty-nine of the records are for just one individual. One sample from 2009 did include 40 lice. Whilst it is unclear which farm is home to the sampling site, the location is also near what used to be the most contentious salmon farm in all of Scotland. Yet, the sampling clearly indicates that the lice count in the water column is extremely low.
If the Scottish Coastal Observatory is being hailed as an example of good science and data which shapes policy, then perhaps Government, the Marine Directorate and SEPA should all take note that the sea lice larvae are not commonly found in the waters around the Scottish west coast as everyone seems to suggest.